An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

A Prince of North Beach

Our landlord owned our block – as well as a few choice properties in the financial district. Serious money, and lots of influence. The family money, he would tell anyone who cared to listen, came from his grandfather, who ran a giant still in the Gallo Sausage factory building around the corner during prohibition. “Some people think I’m some kind of Godfather”, he said, grinning wickedly, “but all that Mafia shit, that’s just a bunch of hooey anyway”. A shiver went down my spine. “Of course, if that kind of thing bothers you, well, maybe you don’t want to rent from me.” Oh, no, it’s no concern of ours. We like the apartment.

The arrangement was that on the first – “Not the second, you understand? When I say the first, it’s the first. Of course if you’re going to be out of town, you can pay in advance. Come to my house between two and seven in the afternoon. I prefer cash. No deposit, I trust you – and I know you won’t give me any trouble. My life is just like that: nobody ever gives me any trouble.”

So there we were, on the first of the month, trudging up Green Street to the Bay side of Russian Hill. And there was his house, a very ordinary-looking and unpretentious San Francisco-style two-story dwelling with no fence or obvious security. We rang the doorbell. He answered the door in his usual attire: a thousand-dollar hand-tailored dark gray sharkskin suit, a heavily starched white shirt and blue tie, and a couple of diamond rings. We were ushered in to the house and taken to the living room in the back. The entire back wall was glass. The view was spectacular, from Sausalito on the north to Alameda naval yard on the south, and across the Bay to the Berkeley hills. He sat down in an easy chair, and put his highly polished loafers up on a coffee table.

“That’s a pretty nice table”, Ellen said. Yes, he said, it’s a Louis Fourteen. “Aren’t you worried you might scratch it?” she asked. He laughed. Well, he said, waving his hand as if dismissing the idea. If I do I’ll just have to go buy another. Then he turned to the window. “You see that, down there, what that stupid bitch is doing?” Can’t say I do. “There, there, can’t you see it? That goddammed laundry hanging on that line”. Now I could see it, about five blocks down the hill. “Oh, yes, now I see it”. “It’s spoiling my goddammed view. It’s an eyesore. I went down there, and knocked on her door. I told her I’d buy her a dryer. She said she liked to dry her laundry in the sun. Can you imagine? The lack of consideration! I even offered to pay her a little every month. No dice. Whaddaya gonna do with stupid people like that?” I began silently to cheer her, whomever she was. A person of principle, unwilling to sell herself for money.

“What a pig!” Ellen said when we left. “I just wanted to kick him in the nuts.” I was shocked. Ellen usually found a way to like just about everybody.

“Where did that come from”? I asked.

“I was just thinking about the cruelty; the kind of indifference to others that he showed in that story about that poor woman down the hill. You don’t think he just rang her up and politely inquired, do you?” I hadn’t thought about it. “He probably sent a couple of his stooges down there. He’d never lower himself to go there himself. They probably scared the shit out of her. I would have been scared if it was me. All alone. Maybe kids. Open the door and there’s a couple of bullies.” Whoa, whoa, how do you know that? “You think he’s the first of his kind I’ve met? I just hoped I’d never have to meet another.

“Listen”, I said, “we don’t have to like him, we only have to pay the rent on time and not spit on his shoes. Think you can do that?” We didn’t talk much on the way back to Oakland, where we quickly lost ourselves in the joyous work of packing up for the move to The City.

A few weeks later, close to the end of our first month in our new apartment, the landlord called and said he wanted to come and talk to us. When he got there, he was in a strangely manic mood, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, gesturing broadly with his hands, and smiling so hard it looked like rigor mortis. We were in the midst of painting a kitchen table and chairs black. He kept almost brushing up against the table with his expensive silk suit. Every time he came close, I would wince. After a while, I caught on: every time I winced, his eyes would twinkle.

As it turned out, he didn’t have anything to tell us. He was just checking up. Apparently he was satisfied, because he didn’t come back again. “You see?” said Ellen, “you see? What an asshole he is, how he baited you with the suit? It took you so long to catch on. I knew it right away; and I could tell when you stopped giving a shit.”

“So, you telling me he’s a bully? I know that; I’m tall, remember? I’m used to being baited by short people. I just keep forgetting how it is, so I’m a little slow.”

After a couple of years, we sold everything and left the country, convinced (and I rate this prediction right down there with saying that Dylan would never amount to anything) that LBJ was going to become the first dictator / president in U.S. history, and that all the liberals would end up in concentration camps. You may think we were doing too much dope, but it sure seemed to make sense in May of 1967. As it happened, our timing was good in one respect: the day before I was going to give our landlord notice, he came up to our apartment.

“I hear that you’ve been entertaining Jews, Niggers and Hippies here, and I can’t have that. You’ll have to move”, he said.

“OK”, I said, “we’ll be out of here by the end of June”. Nodding his satisfaction, he turned to go. “By the way”, I said, stopping his movement, “which ones were the niggers?” He grunted, unamused, and stalked off.

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